1902 Encyclopedia > John Russell, 1st Earl Russell

John Russell, 1st Earl Russell
British politician
(1792-1878)




EARL JOHN RUSSELL (1792-1878), a statesman who for nearly half a century faithfully repre-sented the traditions of Whig politics, was the third son of John, sixth duke of Bedford, and was born in Hertford Street, Mayfair, London, 18th August 1792, one of the most terrible months in the annals of the French Revolu-tion. Whilst still a child he was sent io a private school at Sunbury, and for a short time he was at Westminster School. Long and severe illness led to his being placed, with many other young men sprung from Whig parents, with a private tutor at Woodnesborough in Kent. Following in the footsteps of Lord Henry Petty, Brougham, and Horner, he went to the university of Edinburgh, then the academic centre of Liberalism, and dwelt in the house of Prof. Playfair, whom he afterwards described as " one of the best and noblest, the most upright, the most bene-volent, and the most liberal of all philosophers." On leaving the university, he determined upon taking a foreign tour, and, as the greater part of Europe was overrun by French troops, he landed at Lisbon with the intention of exploring the countries of Portugal and Spam. Lord John Russell had previously arrived at the conclusion that the continuance of the war with France was necessary for the restoration of the peace of Europe, and his convictions were deepened by the experience of travel. On the 4th May 1813, ere he was of age, he was returned for the ducal borough of Tavistock, and in this he resembled Lord Chesterfield and other aristocratic legislators, who were entrusted with the duty of law-making before they had arrived at years of discretion. After the battle of Water-loo the Whig representatives in parliament concentrated their efforts in promoting financial reform, and in resisting those arbitrary settlements of the Continental countries which found favour in the eyes of Metternich and Castle-reagh. In foreign politics Lord John Russell's oratorical talents were especially shown in his straggles to prevent the union of Norway and Sweden. In domestic questions he cast in his lot with those who opposed the repressive measures of 1817, and protested that the causes of the discontent at home should be removed by remedial legisla-tion. When failure attended all his efforts he resigned his seat for Tavistock, and meditated permanent withdrawal from public life, but was dissuaded from this step by the arguments of his friends, and especially by a poetic appeal from Tom Moore. In the parliament of 1818-20 he again represented the family borough in Devon, and in May 1819 began his long advocacy of parliamentary reform by moving for an inquiry into the corruption which prevailed in the Cornish constituency of Grampound. During the first parliament (1820-26) of George IV. the county of Huntingdon accepted Lord John Russell's services as its representative, and it was his good fortune to secure in 1821 the disfranchisement of Grampound, but his satis-faction at this triumph was diminished by the fact that the seats were not transferred to the constituency which he desired. This was the sole parliamentary victory which the advocates of a reform of the representa-tion obtained before 1832, but they found cause for congratulation in other triumphs. Lord John Russell paid the penalty for his advocacy of Catholic emancipation with the loss in 1826 of his seat for Huntingdon county, but he found a shelter in the Irish borough of Bandon Bridge. He led the attack against the Test Acts by carrying in February 1828 with a majority of forty-four a motion for a committee to inquire into their operations, and after this decisive victory they were repealed. He warmly supported the Wellington ministry when it realized that the king's government could only be carried on by the passing of a Catholic Relief Act. For the greater part of the short-lived parliament of 1830-31 he served his old constituency of Tavistock, having been beaten in a contest for Bedford county at the general election by one vote; and, when Lord Grey's Reform ministry was formed, Lord John Russell accepted the office of paymaster-general, though, strange to say, he was not admitted into the sacred precincts of the cabinet. This exclusion from the official hierarchy was rendered the more remarkable by the circumstance that he was selected (1st March 1831) to explain the provisions of the Reform Bill, to which the cabinet had given its formal sanction. The Whig ministry were soon met by defeat, but an appeal to the country increased the number of their adherents, and Lord John Russell himself had the satisfaction of being chosen by the freeholders of Devon as their member. After many a period of doubt and defeat, " the bill, the whole bill, and nothing but the bill" passed into law, and Lord John stood forth in the mind of the people as its champion. Although it was not till some years later that he became the leader of the Liberal party, the height of his fame was attained in 1832. After the passing of the Reform Bill he sat for the southern division of Devon, and continued to retain the place of paymaster-general in the ministries of Lord Grey and Lord Melbourne. The former of these cabinets was broken up by the withdrawal of Mr Stanley, after-wards Lord Derby, on the proposal for reforming the Irish Church, when he emphasized Lord John Russell's part in the movements by the saying " Johnny's upset the coach;" the latter was abruptly, if not rudely, dismissed by William IV. when the death of Lord Spencer promoted the leader of the House of Commons, Lord Althorp, to the peerage, and Lord John Russell was proposed as tho spokesman of the ministry in the Commons. At the general election which ensued the Tories received a considerable accession of strength, but not sufficient to ensure their continuance in office, and the adoption by the House of Commons of the proposition of the Whig leader, that the surplus funds of the Irish Church should be applied to general education, necessitated the resignation of Sir Robert Peel's ministry. In Lord Melbourne's new administration Lord John Russell became home secretary and leader of the House of Commons, but on his seeking a renewal of confidence from the electors of South Devon, he was defeated and driven to Stroud. Although the course of the Whig ministry was not attended by uniform prosperity, it succeeded in passing a Municipal Reform Bill, and in carrying a settle-ment of the tithe question in England and Ireland. At the close of its career the troubles in Canada threatened a severance of that dependency from the home country, whereupon Lord John Russell, with a courage which never deserted him, took charge of the department, at that time a dual department, of war and the colonies. In May 1839, on an adverse motion concerning the administration of Jamaica, the ministry was left with a majority of five only, and promptly resigned the seals of office. Sir Robert Peel's attempt to form a ministry was, however, frustrated by the refusal of the queen to dismiss the ladies of the bedchamber, and the Whigs resumed their places. Their prospects brightened when Sir John Tarde Buller's motion of " no confidence " was defeated by twenty-one, but the glimpse of sunlight soon faded, and a similar vote was some months later carried by a majority of one, whereupon the Whig leader announced a dissolution of parliament (1841). At the polling booth his friends were smitten hip and thigh ; the return of Lord John Russell for the City of London was almost their solitary triumph. On Sir Robert Peel's resignation (1846) the task of forming an administration was entrusted to Lord John Russell, and he remained at the head of affairs from 1846 to 1852, but his tenure of office was not marked by any great legislative enactments. His celebrated Durham letter on the threatened assump-tion of ecclesiastical titles by the Roman Catholic bishops weakened the attachment of the "Peelites" and alienated his Irish supporters. The impotence of their opponents, rather than the strength of their friends, kept the Whig ministry in power, and, although beaten by a majority of nearly two to one on Mr Locke King's County Franchise Bill in February 1851, it could not divest itself of office. Lord Palmerston's unauthorized recognition of the French coup d'etat was followed by his dismissal, but he had his revenge in the ejectment of his old colleagues a few months later. During Lord Aberdeen's administration Lord John Russell led the Lower House, at first as foreign secretary, then without portfolio, and lastly as presi-dent of the council. In 1854 he brought in a Reform Bill, but in consequence of the war with Russia the bill was allowed, much to its author's mortification, to drop. His popularity was diminished by this failure, and although he resigned in January 1855, on Mr Roebuck's Crimea motion, he did not regain his old position in the country. At the Vienna conference (1855) Lord John Russell was England's representative, and immediately on his return he became secretary of the colonies; but the errors in his negotiations at the Austrian capital followed him and forced him to retire. For some years after this he was the " stormy petrel" of politics. He was the chief instrument in defeating Lord Palmerston in 1857. He led the attack on the Tory Reform Bill of 1859. A reconciliation was then effected between the rival Whig leaders, and Lord John Russell consented to become foreign secretary in Lord Palmerston's ministry, and to accept an earldom. During the American War Earl Russell's sympathies with the North restrained his country from embarking in the contest, but he was not equally successful in his desire to prevent the spoliation of Denmark. On Lord Palmerston's death (October 1865) Earl Russell was once more sum-moned to form a cabinet, but the defeat of his ministry in the following June on the Reform Bill which they had introduced was followed by his retirement from public life. His leisure hours were spent after this event in the preparation of numberless letters and speeches, and in the composition of his Recollections and Suggestions, but every-thing he wrote was marked by the belief that all philo-sophy, political or social, was summed up in the Whig creed of fifty years previously. Earl Russell died at Pembroke Lodge, Richmond Park, 28th May 1878.

For more than half a century Earl Russell lived in the excitement of political life. He participated in the troubles of Whiggism before 1832, and shared in its triumph after that event. He expounded the principles of the first Reform Bill and lived to see a second carried into law by the Conservative ministry of Lord Derby. Un- limited confidence in his own resources exposed him to many jests from both friend and foe, but he rightly estimated his powers, and they carried him to the highest places in the state. His tragedies and his essays are forgotten, but his works on Fox are among the chief authorities on Whig politics. Earl Russell was twice married, —first, in 1835, to Adelaide, daughter of Mr Thomas Lister, and widow of Thomas, second Lord Ribblesdale, and secondly, in 1841, to Lady Frances Ann Maria, daughter of the second earl of Minto. By the former he had two daughters, by the latter three sons and one daughter. His eldest son, Lord Amberley, predeceased him 9th January 1876. (W. P. C.)






The above article was written by: W. P. Courtney.



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